Dedicated to diversity

We talked to five CEOs to get their take on diversity at work
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2017

Bill McFarland CEO and senior partner of PwC

The professional services firm has 6,000 employees in Canada

Bill McFarland, CEO and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), grew up with three older, “way smarter” sisters, he says, so he learned early in life about the talent available. That may be part of the reason why he has made diversity and inclusion priorities at the 6,000-employee professional services firm based in Toronto.

“It really means creating an environment at PwC where people feel safe to voice their opinion, they’re inspired and empowered to bring their best and, I’ll call it, real selves to work every day, and use the rich and different experiences and perspectives that they have to team together on client projects. So really it’s about the firm and all of our people having the opportunity to meet their full potential,” he says. “Our goal at PwC would be to acknowledge, respect and thrive off each other’s differences, whether that’s gender, religion, sexual identity or race.”

Diversity is also good for business, he says.

“If you bring together different people with different experiences and you team them together, you’re going to come up with better ideas which will help us provide more value to our clients, which will ultimately lead to better people and a better bottom line.”

Even customers will point out the need for diversity, as one client did years ago, saying: “Well Bill, if you have three white males on the cover of a proposal, you shouldn’t really expect to win that work,” says McFarland. “We strongly believe we need to mirror within PwC the communities in which we work.”

McFarland also made a point to change the management structure when he came on board by having a broader group.

“It allows me to have more diversity, be more inclusive and have very different perspectives, and I can tell you we have very different conversations today than we had historically at the executive team level.”

And PwC has focused on educating partners and employees about diversity and inclusion, he says, “both from a fairness perspective to our people, and from a business case perspective.”

That’s meant training around unconscious bias.

“We all have biases, we may not be aware of them, and we need to become aware of them so that we treat people fairly. So that was a key part, and that is still continuing today,” says McFarland.

PwC is also a founding impact champion for the United Nations’ HeForShe initiative.

“It empowers both men and women to take an online pledge that confirms their support for gender diversity, and we have close to 2,000 of our men at PwC Canada who have taken that pledge, so I’m really proud of that fact; that tells you it also resonates with a broad group within our staff and our people — but it also says we’ve got more work to do.”

Members of the extended leadership team each sponsor two women to make sure they’re having the right experiences and opportunities at the firm.

“In our succession planning process, we look at whether we have diverse candidates for each senior position, and we also have worked hard at taking the unconscious bias out of promotion and compensation decisions,” he says.

PwC Canada also set a goal of 50-50 gender parity for new partner admits by 2020, says McFarland.

“That promotes a different level of dialogue, is the way I’d put it, and actively managing our partner pipeline and our talent mix. And I think that’s been extremely well-received by our people, and the business community and it ties back to (the fact) we hire slightly over 50 per cent females, and so, therefore, we should be reflecting that in ultimately who ends up as partners in the firm.”

As for any backlash or resentments, it’s more about making sure diversity stays a priority.

“We have lots of priorities in big businesses, therefore, people are always wondering, ‘Is this the flavour of the day or how do I know this is actually important?’ and they’re watching very closely,” he says.

“The leadership commitment is one of the most important things — that tone from the top.”

It’s also about having the backbone to call out bad behaviour, such as bias in hiring decisions, says McFarland.

“These are all tests of leadership, and our staff and our partners take the cues on how we respond to those over a period of time, so it isn’t about one day, it’s about having a consistent approach over the longer term.”


Sue Tomney CEO of YWCA Calgary

The women’s organization has about 350 employees

As an organization that began with a focus on women, diversity should come naturally to the YWCA Calgary. But diversity is more of an evolving culture piece, according to Sue Tomney, CEO.

“It’s so expansive. It’s around gender, age, religion, mental health, economic viability, so really for us, it even goes past culture, it’s more of a mindset of how we approach our work, and it’s really about continuing to change. And it has always had to be something that’s been responsive in terms of how it relates to our community, not only our employees but our clients, so it is just forever evolving.”

A focus on diversity has always been there, but it hasn’t been overt, says Tomney.

“We’re an organization that serves such a diverse spectrum of clients, it can be easy for us to become the shoemaker’s children, so it’s more we look at diversity around our clients and how best we’re serving them and then tend not to look inward in terms of how we’re evolving as an organization, as a group of employees. So I think that this is something just in the last six to 12 months that we said, ‘Boy, we’d better be paying attention to this as much internally as we are externally,’” she says.

“Without being intentional, it’s very easy for us to take our eye off the ball.”

As a social services agency, the YWCA can be so focused on the client that it doesn’t pause and understand what it’s doing itself, says Tomney.

“We are constantly trying to help them and we forget we have to do work here. That’s a real mind shift, and I think it’s exacerbated by having a large female staff… women put themselves last a lot of time, so there has to be discipline in making sure we pay attention to how we operate as a team.”

Diversity has to start at the top, and that means the board, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, she says.

“They really set the tone and so it needs to be something that’s clearly understood and something that is practised there. There’s more opportunity for rigour that way because boards have terms that expire, and new board members that come in, so it’s a more ongoing process, whereas employees may be here for 20 years.”

Leadership buy-in has to be there, and sometimes that means recognizing you’re not making progress or there are still some obstacles, says Tomney. “Everybody needs to be accountable to someone.”

It’s about using a diversity lens in informing all of the organization’s work, she says.

“Then, we’re actually able to achieve the culture of inclusion, which is what we talk about: ‘Inclusion for our clients, are we doing that here?’”

 That means looking at recruitment and onboarding, and striving to continually improve, says Tomney. Diversity is also a strength because it ensures the YWCA will continue to be relevant and serve the needs of the community.

“We’re an old broad, we’re 106 years old, and we feel like we’re still young but that’s because we continue to reflect the needs of the community, so the way to do that is ensuring we are diverse.”

Some of the more tangible initiatives around diversity include a culture statement created in 2014, done with input from employees, along with a practice framework created in 2015 that talks about the importance of issues such as language, ethnicity and economic and mental health status, she says.

It’s also about ensuring policies and benefits reflect the diversity of the workforce, as people are in different stages of their life or have different family circumstances, says Tomney.

“It’s less about ‘Oh, what’s the cost of the dental plan?’ and it’s more around ‘How do our benefits, how do our vacation and time off reflect who we are, and ensure that... there are choices for our employees because of our diversity?’”

Age is another area of diversity that’s starting to become more of an issue, says Tomney, with many people working longer.

“You have now arguably four different generations in any workplace, so the needs are different there on how people view things... and I think it makes us a richer organization as a result. We have to realize there are different needs and wants when you’re in a different age bracket, and different motivators.”

When it comes to measuring diversity, the YWCA is working on benchmarking and tracking but, anecdotally, it can be striking to see the diversity at meetings, she says.

“It’s really exciting, it says we are paying attention to our hiring practices.”

When it comes to challenges around diversity, there’s the danger of getting caught in a perception of fairness, and it’s about understanding that it’s equity versus equality, she says.

“Equity means having the same opportunities for a fair outcome, so that’s where it can be challenging.”

Generally, feedback on diversity is positive, but where it gets challenging is the fact that diversity means different things to different people, says Tomney.

“You could come in here and say we’re not as diverse as we need to be strictly from gender, and a lot of that is because of the type of agency we are.”

As a 106-year-old organization with a solid reputation, there’s farther to fall, she says.

“It doesn’t take much to take that down... that’s why we know we have to continually look at this because there’s a lot to lose.”


Mike Mallen Acting CEO of the Museum of Vancouver

The non-profit organization has about 35 employees

Mike Mallen, acting CEO of the Museum of Vancouver, has worked at much larger organizations, with tens of thousands of employees but, in a way, focusing on diversity at a smaller workplace like the museum can be more challenging, he says.

“You interact with everyone on a daily basis, and they challenge you because if you say you’re going to do something and it’s not done… they hold me to task... I expect the same from them as from me… they don’t let me off the hook,” says Mallen. “They see you every day, and they see you live those values or you don’t. So, in some ways, it’s more difficult.”

A lot of what the Museum of Vancouver does is project-based, and to tell a story properly, it’s important to hire the right people for the work, he says.

“It’s important to go back and say, ‘We need people from the community to tell the stories, and not just the people here.’”

But since the museum can’t always have someone full-time, it’s about making a point to hire appropriately. For example, the museum is looking to do an exhibition on the Chinese-Canadian experience, primarily around immigration, so it’s looking to hire a Chinese-Canadian curator “to help us understand what’s important to the community,” he says.

But taking that approach can be hard.

“We’re trying to hire for a finite amount of time, so trying to find the right person at the right time can be a challenge,” says Mallen.

Much of the museum’s renewed focus on community comes from the board. About two years ago, one of the museum’s mandates was to reshape the board, which led to a “very interesting and very strong mix that we hadn’t seen in a long time,” says Mallen.

And the board chair, Jill Tipping, has made a point to look at finding people not just from the museum community but different businesses and areas, he says.

“When you start looking at our board, it’s diverse through gender, we have First Nations, we have people from the academic side of things, people from the business community, we have lawyers — it’s such a different group of people… who are able to offer different perspectives and guidance when it comes to how we hire externally and how we hire for projects.”

This year, the Museum of Vancouver also hired a permanent First Nations associate curator.

“It’s been so uplifting for staff to see it’s not a one-time (hire), it’s something that’s resonating throughout the organization — from education, public programming, hiring, even the gift shop, ethically. It’s really brought a realness to it. (If it’s) project-based, it can really fall apart if you don’t live it every day, and it’s always interesting to hear someone’s perspective who’s there and can understand it and connect the dots.”


Gentil Mateus CEO of CSSEA

The Community Social Services Employers Association of BC has 23 employees

Born in Portugal, Gentil Mateus has many employees who are also first-generation immigrants. As CEO of CSSEA (the Community Social Services Employers Association of BC), he thinks it’s important that the makeup of the organization reflects the larger society in which it operates and, to a certain extent, its client base.

“For me, that’s what diversity means, is that people can identify with the people who are working in the organization... and you’re more likely to be sensitive to the needs and aspirations and the challenges of the community you serve,” says Mateus, in Vancouver.

Diversity also enhances an organization in providing different viewpoints and perspectives when tackling an issue or developing a strategy.

“I’ve seen organizations where leaders surround themselves with people who think like they think and they have the same cultural background and I always try to do the opposite of that  — I actually want people that think differently than I do, bring different perspectives to the table — and together it usually makes for better outcomes,” he says.

But there will be times when people’s suggestions are not accepted or adopted. Then, it’s a matter of leadership circling back to thank the people and say their opinions are still valued, says Mateus.

“It requires more thoughtfulness in how you interact with staff.”

However, by and large, diversity has been “quite a bit of a passive exercise,” he says, in the sense of being aware of the makeup of his workforce, but “not necessarily prescriptive.”

“I always surround myself with the best people — regardless of race, gender, religion, colour — because I feel comfortable with that, and it makes for better outcomes, so it’s never really been an issue,” says Mateus, citing as an example his recent decision to hire a lawyer who held quite different viewpoints than him.

 “For me it’s more ‘Be alive, be connected to the people you serve and the community you work in, and does your organization by and large reflect that?’”

Employers will be more successful with diversity if they truly believe in it, instead of being forced to adopt it and put in place a policy, he says.

“If you do value diversity, you will inevitably surround yourself with people of diverse backgrounds, so if you honestly truly believe that, then you more often than not are going to be fostering a culture of diversity... it almost happens organically.”

Leadership needs to articulate the values they want to promote and foster within the organization, and be clear and transparent.

“Where organizations fall short is that their words and actions do not match, or they’re often incongruent, and when managers and others see the incongruency in the words and actions of leadership, it’s almost permission for them to do whatever they want,” he says.

“It starts first and foremost with valuing diversity, and then recruitment is just the means by which you ensure those values manifest themselves in the organization.”

And that doesn’t mean hiring “tokens,” says Mateus.

“First of all, you started from the wrong premise, as far as I’m concerned, and there’s an inherently prejudicial bias that goes into the decision-making,” he says.

“I know you can legislate or create policies about certain stuff, but it’s so much better if you actually believe what you’re doing instead of it being forced upon you or the organization.”

And the inclusion part of the equation is important. That means flexibility, for example, when people make requests around accommodation, as organizations are often more rigid than they need to be, he says.

But it’s also about communication to avoid any potential backlash, says Mateus.

“The piece that you need to circle back is make sure folks in the organization, to the extent possible…  are aware everybody is being treated equally — and that doesn’t mean the same because some may have different needs than others, and that’s OK — but people need to feel if they have a similar concern, they would be given the same consideration.”


Leigh-Anne Palter CEO of Chestermere Utilities

The utility is based in Chestermere, Alta., and has 30 employees

As a woman who’s only ever worked in roles considered non-traditional for her gender, Leigh-Anne Palter knows well the value of diversity.

“Diversity is everything,” says the CEO of Chestermere Utilities.

Back when Palter started working in the 1990s at a large natural gas utility, diversity was about creating respectful workplaces for women — such as taking down pin-up calendars in the receiving docks.

But at its core, diversity is recognizing the importance of having differences, and being very deliberate about it, she says.

“There’s a human nature in all of us that we like to spend time with the people who are most like us, and that can be great for cocktail hours or after-hours type activities, but I don’t believe it brings the best results to organizations. And if you’re mindful about that, and challenge yourself to think outside of your comfort zone when you’re looking at adding team members, (it’s about being) very deliberate about making sure that you’re really checking all the boxes in terms of the organization’s needs.”

Along with gender, diversity can be about experience or socioeconomic or educational differences, she says. Palter, for example, spent time in executive recruitment and has done a lot of board work.

“It’s fascinating to watch the dynamic,” she says as, more often than not, diversity meant hiring more women and visible minorities. But once that was achieved, the companies found the decision-making hadn’t really improved and they weren’t attracting more representative groups.

“You sit down and say to them ‘All you’ve done is brought on more people exactly like you — you haven’t really dug down deep and done the hard work around diversity, and so a whole bunch of middle-class people, irrespective of their gender or skin colour, isn’t really diversity because you all share a degree at a post-secondary and you all enjoy the same means of life, and struggle with the same things.’”

But diversity can make for tough dynamics at the leadership table.

“You think about (for example) how to be inclusive of First Nations peoples — they have very different interaction styles, and for your traditional board or your traditional leadership team of a utility, (it’s about being) committed to understanding what does that mean and how do you have to adapt, how do you make your organization welcoming to the kind of diversity you want?” says Palter.

And since she joined the utility two years ago, things have changed.

“We’ve completely turned things over. We have first-generation
Canadians, we have young people, we have some folks who are returning for third careers, so they’re bringing lots of experience, we have (LGBTQ) folks as part of our team, and people who speak different languages,” she says. “We look more like the community that we serve .”

But there can be backlash, as Palter has seen at much larger organizations. When there was a women’s leadership lunch, for example, people would ask if there would be a similar event for men.

“Sadly, that’s to be expected — people start feeling threatened when there’s deliberate action,” she says.

Leadership is everything because people will model the behaviours that are expected of them, says Palter.

“There’s nothing worse than having a leadership team where maybe the CEO and typically the senior vice-president of HR say, ‘This is important, this is what we’re going to do,’ and yet other leadership team members say, ‘Ah, this’ll die soon’ or they’re not being held accountable.”

It’s important to hire leaders with qualities that say, “This is part of who we are,” says Palter. It’s also about challenging each other and in the hiring process, making sure people are involved from different areas.

“You’re forcing diversity into the conversation just by the fact of not having people of the same background making hiring decisions.”

And maintaining that drive requires focus every single day.

“Once you get a critical mass in organizations, it can become self-sustaining, it becomes the way that you do things,” she says.

But one of the challenges is the inclusion side, says Palter. It might be great, for example, to hire a woman who speaks two different languages, but if people can’t understand her on the phone, then the employer has to figure out a way to make that work.

“It’s a constant — I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle — but it has to be a constant point of focus. If (for example) you say you want young, professional women in the workplace, you have to acknowledge they’re also the ones having babies, so how do you create a workplace where they feel like they can have both? It’s about creating flexible work schedules and understanding kids get sick and they need to call from home for meetings. Lots of people say it but then they don’t adapt the expectations of the workplace.”

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